Netflix went all out with their western, The Harder They Fall. It’s one of the few films from the genre centered on Black protagonists, let alone characters based on historical figures. Released on the streaming platform on October 22, the revisionist revenge romp brings together real-life Black cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws of the nineteenth-century American West and lets the sparks fly. And let me tell you something. We. Are. Here. For. This. Cuffee, portrayed by Danielle Deadwyler, is modeled on Cathay Williams, aka William Cathay, who served in the United States Army dressed as a man. Pamela D. Toler profiles her in Women Warriors: An Unexpected History. This is her life story at a glance.
Cathay Williams (more or less 1844–1892)* was the first African American woman known to have served in the United States Army—a two-year stint in which she passed as a man.
Born a slave near Independence, Missouri, she was a “house girl” on the Johnson plantation in Cole County, near the Missouri capital of Jefferson City, when the Civil War began. After General Nathaniel Lyons’s troops captured Jefferson City, which had become a rebel stronghold, the Eighth Indiana Volunteer Infantry claimed Williams and other escaped or displaced slaves as “contrabands.”^ She traveled with the regiment for the rest of the war, working as a laundress.
When the war was over, she was free for the first time, but without family, home, or job. We can only speculate as to why she chose to enlist. It is probable that, like many women who walked a similar path before her, her motivation was as basic as economic security. She could earn more as a soldier than as a laundress, or even as a cook, which was the highest paid, most prestigious job available to black women in the United States in 1866.
In November 1866, she enlisted for a three-year term of service as “William Cathay” at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.~ After what must have been a cursory medical examination, she was assigned to the newly formed Thirty-Eighth United States Infantry Regiment—one of six all-black regiments of “Buffalo Soldiers” created by Congress in August 1866 with a view toward filling the need for soldiers created by westward expansion.
It does not appear that her company ever engaged in combat. Even if her fellow soldiers experienced battle, the odds are good Williams would not have been with them. She spent most of her military career on sick call: she was hospitalized five times in four different hospitals over the two years that she served. Apparently no one discovered she was a woman during any of these hospital visits—which raises questions about the quality of the medical care black soldiers received at the time. Or, perhaps, doctors repeatedly discovered the truth about her gender and didn’t bother to report it.
On October 14, 1868, Private William Cathay was discharged from the army for medical reasons. In June 1891, she filed an application for an invalid pension based on her military service. In February 1892, the Pension Bureau rejected her claim on the grounds that no disability existed, not on the grounds that she was a woman and therefore her enlistment in the army was illegal.†
Cathy Williams vanishes from the historical records after the Pension Bureau rejected her claim. She was not a military hero. She did not earn medals or commendations. She probably never faced an enemy in the field. But she earned a place in history.
*It’s often difficult to get biographical information about women—as late as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, social conventions conspired to disguise women in the historical record. Multiply that difficulty many times over in the case of a freed slave. The two data points we have for Williams’s birthday are her army enrollment in 1866, when she claimed to be twenty-two, and her pension application in 1891, when she claimed to be forty-one. If you do the math, you find one of those claims must be wrong. Possibly neither is accurate. It is likely Williams did not know her exact age.
^The term used by the Union army to describe escaped slaves who sought Union protection prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Derived from the concept of “contraband of war,” the term used the concept that slaves were property as the reason why they could not be returned to their owners.
~ Many women chose a male version of their own name. Maria van Antwerpen, for example, enlisted once as Jan van Ant and another time as Machiel van Antwerpen.
†By 1891, the Pension Bureau had dealt with a number of women who applied for military pensions. In fact, Pension Bureau records are a prime source for verifying the military details of women who served in the Civil War disguised as men.
About the Author
Pamela D. Toler goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world, as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. She is author of The Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, among other books. Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and on Time.com. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @pdtoler.